12/17/2005

the power of "Ooga ooga!"

From a story in the New York Times yesterday with the headline, "Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds":

"When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40 percent of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills....

"The college graduates who in 2003 failed to demonstrate proficiency included 53 percent who scored at the intermediate level and 14 percent who scored at the basic level, meaning they could read and understand short, commonplace prose texts. Three percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated "below basic" literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose."

I met this friend of mine for lunch at the highly recommended Neptune restaurant in the North End--the red snapper'll knock your socks off. We were looking for someplace to have an espresso afterwards. We're standing outside this coffee shop and my buddy's like, "I wonder if they sell coffee here, or just tea, or what..." There were all these students with their laptops at a counter in the shop-window, facing the street, and they all looked totally dejected, working on their term papers and finals, and whatnot. I was like, "looks like they're selling misery." And it did.

I told him, you know, a town like this, I should be able to make big bucks editing (read: writing) term papers for these sods. But the truth is, people are cheap when it comes to that kind of thing. But if you can afford $40,000 a year in tuition, you should pay out the nose for your term papers, along with everything else. They want to skimp on the price they pay for people to do their homework for them so they'll have more of their allowance to spend on their crack cocaine, crytal meth, and roofies.

It's not just students, though. There's this sort of corporate slave mentality when it comes to "content" these days. The drones produce the intellectual property to bring in the advertizers. The people who actually produce something are, of course, at the bottom of the heap. It's the guys on top, sitting around with their thumbs up their asses, who are raking in the dough.

I saw this ad on Craig's list a couple weeks ago for editors for screenplays. Whoever it was who wanted them was willing to pay a whopping thirty bucks a script to have them read and rewritten! What year is it again? 1930? I've worked on scripts at nearly that price per page, bitch. You wonder what people are thinking.

The fact is, we live in a world where the written word is so prevalent, people have gotten the idea that just because they can read it at a sixth-grade level and can write emails with a few stale expressions strung together, and sprinkled with emoticons, that this is "literacy." Most people can communicate with words, sure, but like dogs communicate by barking. Want proof? Listen to what people are barking into their cell phones: yes! no! you! me! come! go! when? now! OK, yes, it's communication. Of a sort. We're a nation of Tarzans and Janes. "Ooga ooga!"

Even my friend, who is not the most verbally gifted and knows it, but is nontheless a wildly successful entrepreneur, fell into the trap of assuming he could write the great American novel if only he had the time. That's the reason students have other people write their term papers, too. They'd do it themselves, just like they'd clean their own rooms instead of having the Mexican maid do it, but they just don't have the time, poor dears. They're too busy smoking crack, snorting tina, and raping coeds. It's a grueling schedule. But because they've deluded themselves into thinking they could if only they had more time, they're able to justify paying a pittance for someone else to do it. The pen and the PC aren't really any different from the broom and dustpan, when you think about it. "Dude, it's no big deal--it's only seven pages! I'd do it myself but I'm, like, tripping my balls off at the moment and later me and my, like, roomates have plans to, like, sodomize the neighbor's cat with a whiffle ball bat, hang it from a tree and, like, set it on fire. You know, I've got a very rigorous schedule, dude!"

The illusion of literacy is evident everywhere in our culture. We've learned to communicate in snappy little sound bites, with our vanity plate vocabulary, and in certain situations, that's more than enough. But anyone who's lived abroad in a society where their native tongue isn't spoken, can appreciate that while you can survive by sound bite, it's hard to thrive--intellectually, emotionally, spiritually--without more accutely honed language skills. The devil's in the details.

Hungarians, with whom I spent much of my twenties, take great pride in their language. And it is a real hum-dinger. I remember talking with some of my students there when I first arrived, about poetry, and the difficulties of translating it into another tongue. One of my more sagacious pupils said, "French poetry is much better in Hungarian than in the original French." I said, hmm, why's that? He argued that Hungarian was more supple, mainly on account of what he deemed as its richer vocabulary. He argued that not only do Hungarians have more words than the French to define their emotional states, but they have more emotional states to define (which is, of course, why they need more words to define them). I couldn't argue with him. I didn't have the language, even if I'd wanted to.

But he did have a point. And I have thought about it a lot over the years. We have this Platonic idea of thoughts as sort of fully formed things floating around that we have only to snatch out of the air, but anyone who's spent much time thinking, and then trying to articulate his thoughts knows that it's not quite that simple. Articulating it is half the battle.

Granted, it's not important for the short ejaculations, the grunts and groans, squeeks, shrieks and howls we take for talking points these days. I mean, we went to war on the virtue of "ooga ooga!" Why not, right?

I remember right after my dad died, I was talking to this kind of annoying person I knew, old-friend type. She just kept hounding me with the question, ‘how do you feel?’ I was like, I feel OK. ‘But how do you feel?’ Well, it was expected, you know. ‘Yes, but how do you feel?’ And then, after about five minutes of ‘probing’ or ‘disclosing’ or whatever she calls it she’s like, ‘well, do you feel…sad?’ I was like, Oh, yeah, that’s the word I was searching for! You hit the nail on the head! I feel "ooga ooga!"

Point is: if that's as close an approximation to what you're feeling or thinking as you can get it's better to just bark or howl at the moon.

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